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Long-term care facilities – two sisters seen here visiting their mother through the window at a seniors retirement residence in Mississauga, Ont., on May 14, 2020 – have long been understaffed and the workers overtaxed. The only thing that has made life bearable for many is the helping hand from loved ones.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Depending on where you live in Canada, shopping malls are opening up. So are golf courses and tennis clubs. You can get a haircut, and line up for a latte at your favourite coffee shop. Kids are returning to school and playgrounds. Elective surgeries are slowly resuming.

The locks are coming off the coronavirus lockdown.

Except one place: The impenetrable “iron ring” remains around long-term care facilities and nursing homes in much of the country.

Hundreds of thousands of seniors cannot leave their homes, and they cannot have visitors either. This has been going on for months. Family caregivers, who are the backbone of care delivery in many of these institutions, are losing patience and, in many cases, at wits’ end.

One man has chained himself to a tree outside his mother’s long-term care home in Mississauga to draw attention to the situation. Frustrated by endless window visits and Skype calls, caregivers are demanding to be let back in, and doing so with increasing fervour.

They deserve to get in; their help is desperately needed. Infection control is important but so is feeding people. And talking to them.

After 80 days and counting, public-health officials and politicians have to recognize that the rigid lockdown of seniors’ homes must end. Yes, we have to balance risks, but the scales have tipped from protecting residents from a virus to denying them a semblance of a life.

Thousands of residents of long-term care homes have died of COVID-19. Worse yet, they have almost all died alone, which has only compounded the horror.

Despite the unprecedented media attention and political intervention, many homes are still struggling to provide basic care, in homes with COVID-19 outbreaks as well as those without.

This is not surprising.

Long-term care facilities have long been understaffed and the workers overtaxed. The only thing that has made life bearable for many is the helping hand from loved ones.

The stereotype about care homes is often that they are dumping grounds. With few exceptions, that is not the case.

In large part, residents move to nursing homes because the upkeep of their homes is too much of a burden, physically and/or financially, but they remain active, socially and physically. Because of the COVID-19 related lockdowns, many of those otherwise healthy residents have become isolated and sedentary, and their health has suffered greatly.

Residents of long-term care facilities – where the large majority of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in Canada – are a different demographic. Almost all of them have a multitude of chronic health problems. Notably, two-thirds of long-term care residents have dementia.

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They also have incredibly dedicated caregivers – spouses, children and friends who visit religiously. We’re not talking about the grandson who visits once a year. Many caregivers visit every single day for years, and spend many hours daily.

And “visit” is not the right word. Family caregivers do essential care such as feeding, toileting and dressing. They are often the only people residents speak to.

By locking out loved ones, we have placed highly vulnerable patients in solitary confinement – unable to leave their rooms and deprived of social interaction. This torture is not acceptable for prisoners and it’s certainly not acceptable for our elders.

As a result of forced isolation, many have seen their health decline markedly. Residents of long-term care are not only dying of COVID-19, they are dying of neglect.

Family caregivers don’t only provide essential care. They are watchdogs.

In recent days, we’ve seen disturbing allegations from Canadian Forces soldiers who have come to assist in these homes – everything from residents inappropriately chemically restrained to forced feeding ending in death. We’ve also heard whistle-blowers reveal that residents are malnourished and physically abused.

Caregivers can only wonder what nightmares are unfolding, unseen, behind the locked doors.

The sealing-off of care homes was well-intentioned – to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities as well as the spread of the virus into the community.

But the lockdown is now too broad and has gone on for far too long.

Let the caregivers in. Teach them infection-control procedures – which they can learn as easily as any staff member.

Let them bear witness. Let them lovingly care for their loved ones.

In these pandemic times, vigilance is essential. But cruelty is still unacceptable.

Highlights from a live Q&A with The Globe's health columnist André Picard, where he answers questions on masks, protesting in the age of COVID-19, long term care homes, coronavirus antibodies and adapting to a future where COVID-19 remains in our society.

The Globe and Mail

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